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Jen Schellinck
Adjunct Research Professor
Institute of Cognitive Science
Carleton University

Research Program: Collective Action in Complex Cognitive Systems

Complex cognitive systems—systems that are composed of multiple interacting cognitive individuals—exhibit collective action that is a product or outcome of the interaction of the individuals within the system. My research program seeks to increase our understanding of how it is that particular sets or patterns of individual interactions result in particular collective actions. Research projects are connected to the larger research program through their contributions to answering the fundamental research questions described below.

Within its broad scope, the program is given focus by its perspective on individuals as information processors, which are embedded within a larger cognitive system. In this respect the program takes a firmly cognitive science approach. At the same time, in terms of its subject, this research area overlaps with research carried out in a number of other disciplines, including: population biology, ecology, ethology, human organization studies (anthropology), organizational theory studies (business), information science, organizational psychology, systems science and complexity theory.

Research questions and areas:

Some fundamental research questions:

  • How can collective action be accurately described and measured?
  • How do individual behaviours lead to emergent collective action?
  • How does group structure affect collective action?
  • How does information transfer among individuals (intentional and unintentional) enable or generate collective action?
  • How do complex cognitive systems engage in goal directed action at the system level?
  • How does feedback within these systems—individual to system and back to individual—mediate individual and system actions over time?

Relevant research areas:

Aggregate Motion Research:

The focus of this research is on understanding how aggregate movement patterns emerge from individual behaviours. Possible research areas include:
  • In animals: bird flocks, fish schools, ungulate herds, insect swarms
  • In humans: traffic systems, crowd behaviour

Goal Directed Action Research:

The focus of this research is on understanding how coordinated behaviour within a cognitive system made up of individuals who self-identify as components of the system leads to particular collective actions by the system. Possible research areas include:
  • Group predation
  • Team sports behaviour
  • Organizational and Institutional behaviour
  • Household behaviour

Emergent Behavioural Patterns Research:

The focus of this research is on understanding how individual behaviour that is not obviously goal directed at the system level nonetheless results in large-scale emergent patterns or actions at the level of the cognitive system. Possible research areas include:
  • Tragedy of the Commons behaviours: how individual resource consumption behaviours lead to system level behavioural patterns
  • Tit-for-Tat: how individual social decisions lead to system-level social behaviours, which lead to feedback and alteration of individual social behaviours.
  • Urban Development: how decisions at the individual, government and commercial level lead to particular urban development patterns
  • Predator-prey interactions: how individual predator-prey behaviours or interactions (information exchange) lead to large scale behavioural patterns within the predator-prey system


Current methodologies for investigating collective action in complex cognitive systems include:
  • Field Research—Behavioural observation and recording through:
    • Motion capture technologies (e.g. tracking three dimensional movement patterns)
    • Behavioural questionnaires (for human research)
    • Measurement of system level properties (e.g. location of system, structural properties of system)
  • Modelling
    • Multi-agent simulations
    • Population models
    • Social Network Graphs
  • Experiments
    • Measurement of group behaviour and individual behaviour within a group in a controlled setting